The answer to piracy is innovation, not more copyright laws

New ideas about how to distribute content while being user-friendly and setting low fee are the way forward.

Congress has passed 15 anti-piracy laws in the past 30 years [GALLO/GETTY]

San Francisco, CA – In an op-ed published by Al Jazeera on February 18, Princeton ethicist Peter Singer argued that the “case for enforcing copyright laws was strengthened” by the recent seizure of popular file-sharing site Megaupload’s domain name, along with the arrest of its owner Kim Dotcom. If copyright law is not vigorously enforced, he says, the economy will suffer, and authors, musicians and directors may soon not have a reason to create content anymore.

Contrary to Prof Singer’s claims, the Megaupload case actually shows the dangers of draconian enforcement of copyright laws, which have recently been enforced at the expense of both free speech and US businesses. And despite misleading rhetoric from organisations such as the MPAA and RIAA, both creativity and the entertainment industry itself are thriving.

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First, let’s get one thing straight: the US not only enforces copyright laws already, it often does so overzealously in ways that hurt free speech and innocent users. We can see this in other news from just the past few months. The US government has been seizing thousands of other websites in the name of copyright, often times with little or no due process or court oversight. One such seizure last year led to innocent 84,000 domain names getting censored by mistake.

Just last week, the authorities seized the domain of a successful start up called Jotform – despite its robust copyright policy – leaving their millions of customers with no idea how to access their site. A couple of days later, the US returned the domain with no explanation. Recently, the US even began extradition procedures against a 23 year-old college student in Britain, not for providing copyrighted content, but for merely linking to other sites that do so.

Even in Megaupload’s case, there is the potential for massive collateral damage. Putting aside the guilt or innocence of Megaupload’s owners, we know that many there are many legitimate, innocent users of Megaupload that cannot access their files. Unfortunately, the case may also put the entire cloud computing industry at risk, including popular sites such as Dropbox. In fact, the US government’s draconian stance on copyright enforcement in general may literally be scaring internet companies into moving out of the country.

The reality is that Congress has passed a staggering 15 anti-piracy laws in the past 30 years. Congress extended copyright terms another dozen times – including taking works hundreds of years old and already in the public domain and re-copyrighting them.

But is piracy really that big of a problem? Prof Singer uncritically cites the claim by content industries that “violations of copyright on the internet cost 100,000 jobs in the US alone”. While he did not link to a study providing those numbers, the content companies’ “estimates” of job loss numbers due to piracy have proven again and again and again to be grossly exaggerated. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) itself told the rest of the US government to stop citing the content industries’ studies in 2010 because they “cannot be substantiated or traced back to an underlying data source or methodology”. Despite this rebuke, the industry is still releasing studies without letting anyone look at their methodology or underlying data.


Prof Singer goes on to say that, without more copyright enforcement, “most creative people will need to earn a living doing something else”. Here, the numbers don’t back him up either. A study just released by CCIA and Engine Advocacy shows the content industry has thrived since the advent of file sharing. In the past decade the industry increased 50 per cent and people are spending more money, not less, on entertainment. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service came to similar conclusions. Another study showed that exceptions to copyright law – most notably fair use – are actually worth much more to the economy than copyright itself.

If the fees were low enough the incentive to use pirated copies would diminish.

– Professor Singer

And what about the idea that people are going to stop creating? Creativity is on the rise as well, including in the publishing industry, as the number of both traditional and non-traditional titles has skyrocketed in the past ten years.  

Still, Prof Singer laments that some of his “older works, long out of print, are now far more widely available than they ever were before – in pirated versions”. He also says: “When people use pirated books, the publisher and the author often are worse off – they lose earnings from selling the book.” Putting aside the question of how Mr Singer would make any money on books “long out of print” even if piracy didn’t exist, it’s quite possible these downloads can make him better off, not worse.

The CEO of Rovio, maker of the popular video game Angry Birds, recently remarked how piracy can actually be good for copyright holders saying, “it can get us more business at the end of the day”. The point being, Prof Singer should not fret about people downloading his out-of-print books because they now may be more likely to buy his new one. Legendary musician Neil Young echoed that point, explaining that piracy leads people to discover new works. That, in the end, will lead people to purchase content from the copyright holders.

But the real answer to piracy is innovation, not more copyright enforcement. Encouragingly, Prof Singer alludes to this at the end of his piece when he suggests a “user fee” for consuming content on the internet, much like libraries charge users in other countries. “[I]f the fee were low enough,” he says, “the incentive to use pirated copies would diminish.” In a general sense, new ideas about how to distribute content while being user-friendly is the way forward, as evidence suggests piracy withers in the face of reasonable alternatives. Comedian Louis CK recently showed how an innovative approach can work when he offered a stand-up special in a downloadable format free of restrictions directly to fans for $5 on his website. He made over a million dollars in a few days.

But unfortunately, content companies have steadfastly refused to innovate in the face of new technology for decades. Famously, the MPAA once told Congress: “The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone” – and should, therefore, be outlawed.

Of course, in the years that followed, the movie industry was forced to embrace the VCR and made millions of dollars from it. Copyright holders need to do the same with the internet.

Trevor Timm is an activist and blogger for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.